All Eyes in Washington Turn to 'Super Committee' (UPDATED)

There’s a lot of grumbling on the left and on the right over the recently concluded agreement to increase the federal debt ceiling. Its passage didn’t prevent the U.S. from losing its “triple-A” bond rating, although the decision to drop it to “double-A-plus” by Standard and Poor’s is itself not without criticism.

The left says the deal went too far and that President Barack Obama showed he was weak by agreeing to it.  The right says it didn’t go far enough, with the spending cuts still being less than advertised and leaving the door wide open for a tax increase.

It’s not clear who’s right or if anyone is wrong.

The most controversial part of the deal is the complex arrangement by which Obama gets the second half of his debt ceiling increase -- which should take the issue off the table until after the 2012 election. It involves further reductions in spending, triggers leading to potential across-the-board cuts, and a 12-member congressional “super committee” composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate.

The function of the committee -- the congressional Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction -- is to produce by Thanksgiving a list of $1.5 trillion in recommended savings that will be sent to the floor of the House and Senate where it must get an “up or down” vote by December 23. The report cannot be amended -- making it all or nothing.

If it’s “nothing” -- or if President Obama vetoes it and his veto is upheld, it triggers an additional $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, across the board, split evenly between domestic and defense spending in order to, as lots of people put it, “make sure the pain is spread evenly.”

As the deal was coming together, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said on Face the Nation that the committee would “have a broad mandate” to look at ways to help bring the federal books closer to balance.

Yet it’s that same "broad mandate” that has some people worried that the committee is going to produce a tax increase bill -- or one that pares the value of deductions and credits while leaving rates where they are, enacting a tax increase in all but name.

Count the White House among those who think the “super committee” can do just that.

After the deal was done, President Obama reiterated his call for a “balanced” approach to the problem, which everyone understands is code for raising taxes on all Americans making more than $250,000 a year.

“I believe,” Obama said, “that we have to ask the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share by giving up tax breaks and special deductions.”

Announcing that he intended to lobby the “super committee” because “in this stage, everything will be on the table,” Obama added: “Over the next few months, I’ll continue to make a detailed case to these lawmakers about why I believe a balanced approach is necessary to finish the job.” Meaning he intends to push for tax increases as part of the final deal.

The composition of the committee -- which is not yet known -- is going to have a lot to do with what the final report looks like.  McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have said they will not appoint anyone who would be for higher taxes. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi will almost assuredly appoint no one who favors cuts in entitlements, meaning a standoff right from the start.

There are those who fear “a weak sister” from the GOP, seeking to act in a way the Washington press corps and President Obama would praise, might defect, providing the crucial seventh vote for a tax and revenue heavy package.

Such a package would, however, be dead on arrival in the U.S. House, according to the Republican leadership, which said:

In the unlikely event the Joint Select Committee were to propose tax increases, House Republicans will defeat them on the floor, and the automatic across-the-board sequestration of $1.2 trillion would be implemented. House Republicans will not allow Washington Democrats to use a spending-driven debt crisis to increase job-destroying taxes, especially when our employment situation is the worst since the Great Depression.

From the perspective of the House Republicans -- and they’re the ones who got things to this point by passing “Cut, Cap and Balance" and by winning on the essential point that any increase in the debt limit had to be matched by at least an equal amount of spending cuts -- the purpose of the “super committee” is to produce $1.5 trillion in additional budget savings (including interest savings) over the next 10 years. Besides interest, this requires spending cuts, according to most estimates, of about $1.25 trillion which can be easily achieved through asset sales and other relatively minor cuts off the top.

The most likely outcome is some kind of lowest common denominator approach that leads to a freeze in discretionary spending at the newly agreed upon FY 2012 level, saving $1 trillion out of the baseline.

Of course, the other way around the triggers is for Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment and send it to the states for ratification which, despite what some in Washington seem to believe, remains a live option no matter how much of an uphill climb it seems to be.

“It's the best kind of long-term straitjacket,” McConnell said on Face the Nation. “Our government has certainly demonstrated in the last few decades that it's not very good at controlling its appetite for spending. And the balanced budget amendment would be a good, kind of, long-term mechanism to put this kind of financial straitjacket on our country that desperately needs it.”

UPDATE: "The GOP makes its choices for the super committee, and they're a little odd"